It appears Air Force basketball has finally overcome the loss of Jalen Robinette.
And yes, I have the correct sport.
Robinette was more than a once-a-generation talent for the Falcons as a wide receiver in football. He was also a staunch supporter of the men's basketball team.
Nearly every game for several years saw the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Robinette, usually sleeveless, cut an intimidating figure at the front of the cadet section at basketball games.
I spoke with Robinette over the phone while he was at the NFL combine a few years ago, and his first question was how the basketball team was doing that day.
With Robinette leading the way, others flocked behind him, continuing a long tradition of rowdy support from Section 8 – which has, unfortunately, been given the tamer name of the Falcons’ Nest.
Since Robinette’s departure with the Class of 2017, no one had filled that void. Attendance from the cadets waned and the atmosphere at Clune Arena suffered.
But no more.
The cadets turned out in massive numbers for a 9 p.m. start against UNLV on Jan. 16 and helped the Falcons to a 106-88 victory — their highest-scoring Mountain West game in history against a team that is now 5-1 in conference play. That carried over into a chilly Tuesday night, when the turnout wasn’t as large but still brought enough cadets (several in costume or carrying signs) to fill the full lower section behind the north goal and cause a noticeable difference in the tenor of the arena.
Sophomores Chris Joyce and Keaton Van Soelen addressed the cadets after making big plays on the defensive end in the second half of the 74-60 victory over Boise State — Air Force’s third straight home victory.
So, where did this come from? Football safety and Academic All-American Garrett Kauppilla had an explanation.
“I am starting a movement! We are going to change cadet participation and support of athletics,” Kauppilla wrote in a direct message on Twitter. “I want to bring the life back to the academy and give us all memories that we will hold forever. That UNLV game was just the first step. This is a snowball that just started rolling. I’m going to keep this momentum to and through football season as I close the gap between the athletic department and the cadet wing so that we are all operating together with a common goal!”
Kauppila also posted on social media: “Just getting started, and it is all thanks to the cadets that are trying to be a part of something bigger and the permanent party members that are giving us the stage to make it happen!”
Kauppila, wearing an American flag cape, was among the throng of cadets cheering in the crowd on Tuesday night.
This is, obviously, what Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich wanted to happen, and he concluded his postgame remarks Tuesday by thanking the cadets for again showing up. But it’s also clear the academy felt it had to happen organically. I asked Pilipovich on Monday if he had engaged academy leadership about giveaways or some sort of other incentive to bring more cadets to games. But here’s the thing, bribing the cadets to attend with free food or forcing it upon them as mandatory wouldn’t offer permanent or desirable outcomes. Nobody wants cadets in attendance only because they have to and opting to spend that time catching up on homework from the stands.
But, behind the leadership of athletes like Kauppila — in the Robinette role on the front row — a change has occurred.
“It’s teams supporting teams,” Pilipovich said. “We had a lot of athletes out there from our other sports to support the team.”
And now, in no coincidence, Pilipovich's team has won three in a row at home for the first time since 2015 — when Robinette was there in support.